Cognitive Load Theory

Having recently written a post on how Cognitive Load Theory informs the planning of lessons at Michaela Community School, I was thrilled to find that Oliver Cavigliol (@olivercavigliol) has been posting his own visual summaries of Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga’s book ‘Cognitive Load Theory‘. See his visual summary of each of the book’s chapters below…(or find the complete pdf version here or PowerPoint here)


  1. Categories of Knowledge: An evolutionary approach
  2. Amassing Information: The information store principle
  3. Acquiring Information: The borrowing and reorganising principle
  4. Interacting with the External Environment
  5. Intrinsic and Extraneous Cognitive Load
  6. Measuring Cognitive Load
  7. The Goal Free Effect
  8. The Worked Example and Problem Completion Effects
  9. The Split-Attention Effect
  10. The Modality Effect
  11. The Redundancy Effect
  12. The Expertise Reversal Effect
  13. The Guidance Fading Effect
  14. Facilitating Effective Mental Processes
  15. The Element Interactivity Effect
  16. Altering Element Interactivity & Intrinsic Cognitive Load
  17. Emerging themes in CLT: Transient Information & Collective Working Memory

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‘The Michaela Way’ – the future of teaching and learning?

Over the Easter break I had the occasion to read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh. The book is written by Michaela’s teaching staff and senior leadership, describing the overarching philosophy behind how the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park operates to improve the lives of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The book [and school] are hugely controversial in the educational world due to the radical break away from accepted educational pedagogy, SEN labels, school marking policies, no-excuses discipline and much more besides. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in education to read it.

While I didn’t agree with everything in the book, I did find that much of what was written about resonated deep within me. While initial teacher training (ITT) tends to teach progressive teaching methodologies with an emphasis on teachers as facilitators, learning by doing, group work, a de-emphasis on textbooks and highly personalized learning, Michaela Community School (whose tagline is ‘Knowledge Is Power’), focuses on a more traditional approach. This includes teacher-led classes, greater focus on knowledge and memorisation, regular testing (& competition), reading integrated into every lesson and exceptionally high and consistent expectations of every pupil regardless of ability or background.

Don’t get me wrong, on first hearing about Michaela on Twitter I thought it sounded like a Victorian grammar school with silence in the corridors and punishments doled out for the most minor of offences, but the more I read the book the more I changed my mind and started to question everything I had been taught during my teacher training all those years ago. Since my NQT year I have read voraciously on the most effective ways to teach and promote excellent outcomes for all of my students, but the more I read, the more inconsistencies I found between the various progressive pedagogies. This is particularly true of the educational based research that always seem to offer conflicting views on the next educational fad.

So why am I writing this blog? Well, over the Easter period, not only did I read about the founding principles of Michaela, but also about what cognitive science can tell us about learning and why direct instruction is superior to inquiry based learning and how all of this ties up with how Michaela operates.

This blog is split into 3 sections:

  • Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve
  • Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory
  • Part 3: Direct instruction

Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve

Doug Lemov (who runs the charter network Uncommon schools in the US) recently posted on Twitter that Bloom’s pyramid [of learning] is a problem. To paraphrase his argument: Teachers and senior leaders typically show disdain for the lower levels and that knowledge based questions, especially fact based or ‘closed’ questions are an unproductive way to teach. I would go further to say that in many schools, lesson observations are only  ‘outstanding’ if students are seen to be accessing the higher echelons of the pyramid with a given lesson.

However, what we always forget, and to quote from Doug’s blog, is:

“The framework elaborated by Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities”, with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.”

Note that critical thinking and problem solving cannot happen successfully until the underlying knowledge is in the long term memory of students so that they can readily and automatically access it.

But how do we keep the knowledge in student’s heads? I’m sure we have all marked Year 11 or Year 12 mock exams and been amazed about how muck knowledge seems to have been forgotten. How do we make sure that knowledge gets embedded into long term memory? The 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus explored the nature of forgetting, noting how forgetting follows an exponential relationship with time i.e. forgetting happens most rapidly right after learning has occurred, then begins to slow down.



The secret of embedding knowledge into long term memory (and therefore allowing it to be recalled more quickly) is to review, or test the new knowledge periodically, with those periods of review becoming ever increasingly further apart over time.

Early on in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby‏), a Deputy Head teacher at Michaela, talks about the importance of knowledge, memory and testing. He says:

Every lesson in every subject at Michaela starts with a low-stakes, open-question recap quiz. Pupils get instant feedback, correct their mistakes and improve their answers, but no score is recorded, tracked or monitored…The pupils feel motivated by learning, mastering and remembering so many tangible facts that they can find connections.”

“If we want our students to automate complex concepts, we need to ensure sufficient time, focus, attention, revisiting, application, consolidation, practice, usage and eventual mastery.”

Joe then goes on to talk about a centralised system of homework as revision. At Michaela homework is self-quizing for all pupils across all their subjects (no teacher marking) using departmental designed knowledge organisers, which…

“…specify in meticulous detail the exact facts, dates, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. They organise onto a single page the most vital, useful subject knowledge for each unit…At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer the question for teachers and pupils: “what is most important for us not to forget?”. Everything the pupils need to know is set out clearly in advance.”

One can immediately see how pupils at Michaela, through repeated tests, revision, practise and consolidation, are moving the knowledge they have learnt in class into their long term memory such that they will be able to recall it many months, if not years later.

Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

Ok, so we know what we want students to learn and we know how we can review that knowledge to get it into long-term memory BUT how do we ensure that students understand what we are teaching them on the first pass so that everybody ‘gets it’ first time around?

In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory differentiates cognitive load into three types:

  1. intrinsic load – the effort associated with a specific topic
  2. extraneous load – the way information or tasks are presented to a learner
  3. germane load – work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge [as schemas* in long term memory]

*a schema is a mental structure used to organise knowledge.

A useful YouTube clip on Cognitive Load Theory by the Global Education Academy can be found below:

Essentially, when processing new information we use our working memory which is very limited in the amount of information it can deal with. We want to maximise the space we have in working memory so learners can process information easily and effectively. Too often students have their working memory overloaded when being taught in lessons (see podcast by Greg Ashman at the end of this blog), resulting in a reduction in the amount of material that can be successfully learnt.

An example of this can be seen in Dr Derek Muller’s ‘The science of thinking’ – see clip below. Dr Muller talks about two characters, Drew (your working memory) and Gun (your long term memory), showing how your working memory is quickly overloaded until deliberate practice and periodic review stores the new information into long term memory (as a given schema) where is can be retrieved quickly and automatically [see 2m58s to 5m28s].

So to make lessons more effective we need to make sure we are not overloading students working memory. This can be done by reducing intrinsic load by minimising unnecessary information and scaffolding new information (by hanging it off previous schemas in the long term memory), reducing extraneous load by using clear labelled diagrams and worked examples, and maximising germane load (through minimising the other two).

Head of science, Drew Thomson (@mrthomson), writes an interesting blog below on how he is using CLT to maximise his impact in the classroom, see below:

One trap teachers often fall into as ‘experts’ in their subjects is that we forget what it is like to be the ‘novice’ student learning a topic for the first time, and how easily their working memories become overloaded. Dr Deborah Netolicky does a superb job in reminding us what a ‘novice’ feels like in her blog about moving house and the mental effort it took (overloading her working memory) to carry out mundane routines that were previously automatic (long term memory) to her.

“For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.”

Cognitive Load Theory is something every teacher should be made aware of in their initial teacher training to enable them to be more effective in their planning of lessons (and in my case as a science teacher – experiments).

Part 3: Direct instruction

In a recent edition of Mr Bartons Maths Podcast, Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), a maths and science teacher and PhD researcher in CLT, discusses ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Direct Instruction vs Inquiry Based Learning’. The Podcast is long (2h30m) but immensely interesting and can be found below and here:


If I was to boil down the podcast to a single idea, it would be the following: inquiry or discovery based learning [as often promoted in ITT] overloads a students working memory to the extent that they don’t retain the essential information you want them to learn. Much better to use direct or explicit instruction in a clear and concise manner with plenty of worked examples.

Interestingly ‘direct instruction’ of students doesn’t seem to be something that the majority of teachers have been trained in to use effectively. Unfortunately, this may be because direct instruction is often associated with ‘chalk and talk’ or ‘sage on the stage’ lessons – BUT as shown in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’ these lessons are very enjoyable and highly effective. In her chapter on ‘Drill and Didactic teaching work best’ Olivia Dyer (@oliviaparisdyer) goes through the structure of a typical science lesson which includes; whole-class recap, individual-recap, whole-class reading [improving literacy rates], individual drill and whole-class instruction. At times I felt very uncomfortable reading this chapter, again due to the way I was initially taught to teach – but ultimately I can see why this type of teaching IS effective.

“Memorisation through drill files knowledge into long-term memory and so alleviates working memory to enable pupils to apply what they know to a new scenario…As pupils drill the knowledge we teach, their store of knowledge will become increasingly flexible, as will their ability to use that knowledge”.  

Olivia goes on to say:

“Knowledge that was discovered by geniuses is not instantly intuitive to school-age children. If this knowledge is not explained to pupils, they are left to discover for themselves and end up floundering”.

As a science teacher this last sentence rang very true. How often have I clearly explained a series of tasks to investigate how potential difference varies over a series or parallel circuit, only for it to cause so much confusion that I have had to reteach it from the front the very next lesson!

So direct or explicit instruction seems to be the way forward to minimise cognitive load and effectively impart knowledge to students. However, as students ourselves I am sure we have all sat through exceptionally dull ‘chalk and talk’ lessons, so how do we do direct instruction well? Ben Newmark (@bennewmark) has written a series on excellent blogs on this:

Distilling this down to the main points:

  • Teachers must be experts in their subject knowledge
  • Students must have exemplary behaviour in class
  • Clarity of explanation (stressing key ideas reduces cognitive load)
  • Use storytelling techniques (students find stories easier to remember)
  • Use repetition and interleaving
  • Use clear illustrations [and worked examples]

To conclude

To bring this full circle, I think many of the points raised in this blog are the reasons why the Michaela Community School appears to work so well for some of the country’s most disadvantaged students (I concede that Michaela have yet to be visited by Ofsted and do not yet have a set of GCSE results to be measured against). But it only works because no one teacher is an island, all staff are giving out the same consistent message, students have exceptional behaviour and everyone is ‘rowing together’ in their delivery of knowledge content (through their understanding of both CLT and effective direct instruction) to give all pupils at the school the very best possible start in life.


This post written by Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) on ‘Explanations: Top 10 Teaching Tips” is a MUST READ:

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Intervention strategies for A-level physics (and A-level science in general)


A-level Physics is difficult. If you don’t believe me, see my previous blog post “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, which is the hardest A-level subject of them all?”

Our current entry requirements to study A-level physics in the sixth form are a grade B in GCSE Maths and grade B in GCSE Physics (or grade B in Core & Additional Science). While at first these grades might seem reasonable to study a science at A-level, you need to remember that students only need to score between 45 & 50% of the marks in these GCSE papers to come out with a couple of grade Bs – a very worrying statistic!!

While we do set, and expect, our future Year 12 students to do work over the summer holidays (before starting in September), inevitably there are large gaps in their knowledge base that need to be plugged. During the first 6 weeks of the course we spend a great deal of time trying to get students up to speed, setting large quantities of homework along the way so students know what to expect from the outset. Even so, we have a very high drop out rate going from Year 12 into Year 13 (~50%) which is not unusual for all science A-level subjects. We have just started teaching the new (terminal) A-level science syllabus to our Y12 students which have even more content that last year, so 2015-16 is certainly going to be even more challenging than the previous year.

As such, it is my goal this year to identify problem Year 12 students early on in the academic year (those with lower than expected progress) and put intervention strategies in place for them before things become unrecoverable in the summer when our students sit their AS-level examinations.

Everyone likes a list…….so, here are my top 10 A-level Physics intervention strategies (in no particular order):

  1. Day one
    Get to know your new Year 12 students, their strengths and their weaknesses. A great blog post by misslowephysics suggests getting all students to fill out an A-level questionnaire (see below).
    questionnaireThe advantage of getting your students to fill this in is that you can immediately see if students are taking complementary A-level subjects (such as Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths) and which students are not. Straight away you will get a feel for which students may need more support from you at the outset. You also will get a good feeling for their confidence in mathematics – an essential skill for A-level physics (which is often overlooked by the students).
  2. Essential catch-up material
    As mentioned previously, if students ‘just’ meet the entry criteria to study A-level physics, then they could be missing up to 50% of the prerequisite knowledge needed for the course. To this end I strongly encourage them to purchase (and read!)the following catch-up guides:-> Head Start to A-level Physics (£4.79), and
    -> Essential Maths Skills for A-level Physics (£7.50), OR
    -> Maths Skills for A-level Physics (£9.99)


  3. FREE Physics resources
    Students often feel confused as to where to go if they need extra help and resources on the subject (in addition to their textbooks and physics teacher). To this end at the start of Year 12 we give each of the students the following letter:”Dear Y12 physicist,Welcome to A-level Physics! This course will be hard but extremely rewarding! In order for you to succeed in this course your physics teachers have put together some free resources for you to follow.

    REMEMBER – for every hour spent in the classroom, you should spend AT LEAST another hour at home doing background reading, making extra notes AND completing questions from your textbook to check your understanding (answers in the back). This work is IN ADDITION to any homework set by your teachers.”

    ……the letter goes onto list all the free A-level physics stuff available on the web. Please click here for the most recent draft.

  4. Interactive ALPS spreadsheet
    The Advanced Level Performance System (or Alps) accounts for over 70% of all A-levels taken. The reports generated by Alps allows schools to compare 93 different A-level subjects directly against other schools drawing from over from 2,500 datasets (at time of writing). The methodology calculates a Value-Added score for each A-level department using students KS4 average points scores and their (exam) grades in your particular subject as an input. The Value-Added score that is generated can be compared to other schools in the Alps dataset to return your subject’s percentile and its associated Alps band 1 (blue=underperforming) to 9 (red=overperforming).While the methodology has been designed to collate each student’s Value-Added score and return an overall Alps band for a given A-level subject, in principle you can return an Alps band for each student aswell. By doing so you can immediately see which students are underperforming and need strategic intervention. See screenshot below.ALPS
  5. Personalised physics revision guides (aka the physics bible)
    Some of my A-level students are particularly bad when it comes to organising their loose paper notes. Be it chronologically, by topic, by indexing the syllabus, by subject teacher etc etc. This therefore make it virtually impossible for these students to revise effectively come their mocks or summer exams. Not only this, but some students don’t even make use of their physics textbook (surely not you gasp!).In order to kill two birds with one stone we stole a simple but effective idea from our Chemistry colleagues; give each student an exercise book to be used for their best notes.
    At the end of each topic the students must write a summary of all the key points, diagrams, equations and calculations for that particular chapter of the textbook just covered. They need to use the specification to check they have covered all the key aspects and show wider reading and worked examples where appropriate. Of course some students are better than this than other so we also provide a more structured breakdown for our students when needed. This book is then marked after/during every topic and written feedback given which the students must respond to. Whilst a very simple idea which the students initially disliked – they are all starting to see the value in this process and realise that they will essentially have a personalised physics revision guide by the time they get to their summer exams.
  6. Three act science
    I am also in the process of using three-act-science to engage with my [weaker] students. Dan Meyer, a former high school maths teacher and original inventor of this concept, often felt that his maths students had the following issues:-> Lack of initiative
    -> Lack of perseverance
    -> Lack of retention
    -> Aversion to word problems
    -> Eagerness for the formulaHe realised that they way to rectify this was to give his students interesting open ended Maths problems – see his now famous three acts of a mathematical story or March 2010 TED talk. More recently, Neil Atkin used this idea to come up with an alternative approach to science teaching; three-act-science.  In essence we can get our [weaker] students to engage more with [physics] problems using a 3 stage strategy (called acts). As an example, consider teaching the stability features of objects.

    Act 1: The hook. This should engage every learner. There should be few demands on either the language or the maths. It should ask for a little and offer a lot….see clip below on stability:

    Act 2: The explore – students talk through their ideas. How might this link to other things I have learnt or seen before? Could any of my initial beliefs be wrong? What could we do to get extra information?

    Act 3: The reveal – show students the outcome. Does this match their predictions? How does this link in with the A-level curriculum? Answer to the clip can be found here.

  7. Lots and lots of exam questions!!
    Previous experience has shown me that while our physics students often feel that they ‘get’ a topic, when it comes to the public examinations they often become unstuck because the physics concept has been presented to them in an unfamiliar context. To try to mitigate this, at the start of a topic I like to give out a large range of previous past paper questions. I tell the students to look through all the questions and identify anything that may look familiar to them from their science GCSE. At first very little is highlighted and of course they cannot answer any of the questions. Next, every couple of lessons, I ask them to get out their questions again and go through them a second, third and fourth time. Usually by the third+ time students start to feel that can answer some of the questions, until at the end of the topic the majority of the questions should be accessible to them. While I will then take in and mark and give feedback to their answers, every now and again I will ask the students to come up to the whiteboard and work through some of the more tricky questions. When they have finished I will ask the next student how the answer could be improved, and so on and so on until we have iterated all the way to the correct solution. Finally I will ask them to ‘guess’ what the markscheme would award marks for and inevitably they get the majority of the marks correct because they are critically evaluating each others answers & ideas through this process.
  8. Maths revision classes
    By far and away the most pressing issue when it comes to students underachieving in A-level physics is not have the necessary maths skills to cope with the A-level curriculum (see my blog post on formula triangles). While there is no pre-requisite to study A-level Maths in order to study A-level Physics, the reality is that the majority of students who make it into Year 13 study both. This means that students in Year 12 who aren’t taking any other mathematical A-levels (such as Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry etc) need extra support from us. My plan this year is to put on regular extra maths support classes for these students in order to get them up to speed in these problem areas.
  9. Extra-curricular HAB club
    Apart from covering the physics curriculum, I really wanted to inspire my students interest in physics outside in the *real* world. This year we have partnered up with European Astrotech to run a High Altitude Balloon (HAB) project with all of our physics sixth formers. This is an educational project for students to gain first-hand experience of planning and designing their own scientific experiments which will be launched on a high altitude balloon from the school field to the edge of space, followed by the collection, analysis and presentation of their results. A short clip produced by European Astrotech can be found below. project has captured the imagination of ALL the physics students and got them talking about this subject outside of the classroom. Even my weaker students are really fired up  by the possibilities that this project offers which I hope will spill over into their more formal A-level lessons!
  10. Teacher CPD
    On Saturday 11th June 2016 I’ll be attending the research Ed Maths and Science conference in Oxford, a one-day conference focused on Maths and Sciences educational research. There is a huge array of teachers, researchers and other leading figures in Maths and Science to talk about the evidence behind what really works when teaching these subjects in the classroom. I’m really interested in the talks on gender balance in physics and intervention strategies for A-level physics students as used by other leading practitioners. A full list of speakers can be found here.
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Rearranging equations? Beware the formula triangle!


The dreaded formula triangle! Image credit:

GCSE physics papers have a relatively high mathematical content (20%-30%), so if you are a higher tier student who cannot rearrange equations you are at a serious disadvantage. As teachers, how should we teach our students this algebraic skill? Formula triangles are often a popular way of introducing this topic. Indeed, while in popular use across Key Stage 3, GCSE (and A-level!!!), recent discussions in educationinchemistry, TES & Reddit  seem to imply that formula triangles are a bit like MarmiteTM; you either love them, or hate them.

I’ll put my cards on the table now …………. I’m a hater of the formula triangle.


What is a formula triangle?

Formula triangles are a tool to help students use equations without needing to rearrange them themselves. Consider the famous Ohms Law equation V=IxR (see top graphic), if you want an equation for current, cover up “I” with your finger and the required equation is “V÷R”. Or if you want resistance, cover up “R” and the required equation is “V÷I”. Finally, if you want voltage, cover up “V” and the required equation is “IxR”.

Ok, so far so good. I can do algebra without learning any algebra, how awesome is that!! 🙂

Well, here’s the thing…..formula triangles can only be used in a very specific set of algebraic cases. You can can only have 3 terms in the equation, and the subject of the given equation MUST:

  1. be equal to two things multiplied together
    ___ = ____ x  ____   e.g. Voltage = Current x Resistance,OR,
  2. be equal to the one thing divided by another
    ___ = ____ ÷ _____    e.g. Power = Energy ÷ Time


I’ll admit that the majority (although not all) GCSE physics equations follow this general rule and so as an NQT I used to teach the triangle to ALL my students. However, I am now somewhat wiser and have realised that although my students may know how to use the formula triangle to generate equations in their 3 different guises, unfortunately for them they don’t get the triangles on their GCSE equation sheets. Instead they must take an equation and first construct the triangle themselves in order to then use it. “Hah!” you say, “well that’s ok, they can make the triangle and will know if they have done it correctly by checking that the original equation comes back out of it” – alas, you would think so wouldn’t you! It turns out that for a GCSE physics student this is far more difficult than it sounds…

At this point let’s go to the twitter poll……

Yep… you can see from the massive 37 votes in the poll, we need to find a *NEW* way to teach the rearranging of equations to our science students. So what is the answer?

The line

Mr Thornton of YouTube fame does an excellent job of using “the line” to teach the rearranging of GCSE physics equations with 3 (or more) terms. In fact, using this very simple technique it is possible to take any equation from the GCSE physics equation sheets (see AQA’s P1 and P2) and rearrange them for any term. Again, students can use a simple “rule” without understanding the basics of algebra to get the correct answer.

The balance method

While “the line” approach seems to work well in most situations at GCSE, my main issue with it is that students don’t have to understand what or why they are performing these algebraic manipulations. The balance method is often described as the ‘best’ method for teaching algebraic manipulations and found in many scientific textbooks. This is also a simple rules based approach based on the fact that when a quantity is moved from one side of an equation to the other:

  • positive terms become negative and vice versa;
  • numerators become denominators and vice versa

This method is more comprehensive that either the formula triangle, or the line, since it allows students to deal with multiplication, division, addition AND subtractions. This is my favourite technique for teaching the rearranging of algebraic equations (at A-level). A great introduction in given in BBC Bitesize and by Primrose Kitten on her YouTube channel:

Answering GCSE physics exam questions

While I think that the balance method is the way forward for more complex algebraic manipulations, I would still advise against it when answering GCSE exam questions. Whoa! I thought you just said that the balance method was the best???

Let me show you the best way to answer these types of GCSE physics questions with a worked example from AQA’s P2 exam from summer 2012. The exam paper can be downloaded for free here (mark scheme here). Primrose Kitten also gives a wonderful YouTube summary here.



Question 4(a) on the paper starts with a simple Gravitational Potential Energy question [2 marks]. The student is given the mass, height, gravitational field strength and then asked to identify the correct equation from the equation sheet (no triangles!) and calculate the GPE of a miner at the top of a slide:


Of course, the correct equation to identify is:


so putting all the correct numbers into this equation gives GPE = 80kg x 10 N/kg x 15m = 13,500 Joules.

Question 4(b) follows on by asking the student to calculate the maximum possible speed of the miner at the bottom of the slide [3 marks]. At this point the student should realise that all the Gravitational Potential Energy is turned into Kinetic Energy:


The correct equation to choose from the equation sheet is:


The question asks us to solve for the speed so at this point MOST students turn to their favourite formula triangle, or have a bash at rearranging the Kinetic Energy equation using “the line” or even better, the “balance method”.


HOWEVER I implore you to stop and take a look at the mark scheme:


Yes, it’s crazy I know, but look – you get 2 marks (out of a maximum of 3) for substitution of the numbers directly into the Kinetic Energy formula WITHOUT ANY REARRANGING!!!!

You have got 66.6% of the marks (grade B) on this question without doing any algebraic manipulation whatsoever! This direct substitution of the numbers into an equation (without rearranging) is given marks every single time.

Ok, yes you do have to do some rearranging in the final step, but the bonus here (in my experience) is that students are often much better at doing this last step when they are using real numbers as opposed to abstract variable terms.


To gain the maximum marks when answering GCSE physics questions that involve equations:

  1. List all the quantities given by the question (including any units)
  2. Identify the correct equation from the physics equation sheet
  3. Convert any units required by the equation e.g. cm -> m
  4. Substitute all the numbers directly into the equation [this will get you the majority of the working marks]
  5. Finally, (and only if necessary) rearrange the equation to find the answer you’re looking for
  6. Quote the answer to the correct number of significant figures (if asked) with the correct unit.

Final note: At A-level I would expect students to be fluent at algebraic manipulations using the balance method. While I m not against more able students using the balance method at GCSE, unfortunately due to the way mark schemes award mathematical working marks (see above), I would advise against it.


February 2017 – this blog by Pritesh Raichura (@Mr_Raichura) on how he teaches equations in science is SUPERB!

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Mirror Mirror on the wall, which is the hardest A-level subject of them all….?

Ofqual recently launched a debate on inter-subject comparability and the level of difficulty of different subjects. To quote Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey:

“Many people would initially expect that all [A level subjects would be at] the same level. And in a very broad sense this is true: they are all set at the same general educational level and need similar amounts of teaching and learning time. But when you look closely there are many factors, mostly external, to consider. Is the student’s flair for the subject taken into account and ultimately should you be able to, or even want to, compare say, chemistry and art, or chemists and artists?”

This obviously raises the question, what are the most difficult A-levels? A recent blog by FFT’s education datalab entitled “Is A-level physics too hard (and media studies too easy)?” caused me to consider how wide the variation is between subjects. The blog concludes “At present, outcomes in physics and the other sciences look too low relative to other subjects…….while sciences are perceived as a hard option, more students are likely to be dissuaded from studying them.”

But what about all the other A-level subjects, where do they come in this spectrum of attainment at Key Stage 5? To answer this we can look at the publically available AS-level and A-level exam data from the the Department for Education. The most recently published KS5 Transition Matrices (2.48 Mb) allow us to look at how prior attainment at GCSE maps to pass rates at AS and A-level.

For a ‘typical’ B grade student at GCSE we can calculate the average failure rate* for a variety of subjects at AS-level. We see that for the sciences the failure rate is >30%, MFL, Psychology and Maths comes in at 15%-30%, Humanities and RS 10-15%, and the Arts, Communication Studies and Drama <10%. See figure below:


2014 national data for AS-levels. *I define ‘failure rate’ as % of AS students unlikely to carry the subject onto A-level, in this case those who achieve a grade E or U at AS-level.

At A2 the picture looks very similar. For a ‘typical’ B grade student at GCSE, this time I have plotted the likelihood of attaining each A2 grade in a selection of subjects. Indeed plotting the probability of attainment for each subject reveals 3 distinct profiles. The peaks of each equate to the modal grade for that subject. See below:


Probability of attainment for a variety of A2 subjects if you are a ‘typical’ B grade student at GCSE.

Ok, so at this point you are probably shouting at the screen that your sixth form students have a higher or lower prior attainment at GCSE, so does this pattern hold true across the board? In summary, as prior attainment at GCSE falls, the divergence between subjects grows (the hard subjects get harder, the easier subjects get easier) and as prior attainment rises, the divergence between subjects narrows. Indeed, using the DfE’s Level 3 Value Added Ready Reckoner (19.3 Mb) we can calculate the ‘expected’, aka average, attainment at A-level against average prior attainment at GCSE for the national cohort. See figure and table below:KS5_KS4


The table above shows how a student’s average prior attainment at GCSE maps to expected outcomes at A-level for a variety of subjects.

So far we have used the public tools available to us via the DfE to imply the relative difficulty of certain A-level subjects. Perhaps we should also look at an independent source of data. In this regards schools that use the Advanced Level Performance System (or Alps) account for over 70% of all A-levels taken. The reports generated by Alps allows schools to compare 93 different A-level subjects directly against other schools drawing from over from 2,500 datasets (at time of writing). The methodology basically calculates a Value-Added score for each A-level department in your school and returns your percentile compared to other schools in the dataset. By interrogating the Alps national figures at the 50% we may calculate the Value-Added score for each A-level subject across ALL available datasets and infer the relative difficulty between them. A Value-Added score <1 implies the subject is more difficult than average, >1 the subject is less difficult than average, =1 is exactly average.


Value-Added score @50% for a set of AS-level subjects (national data 2014).

Perhaps the most comprehensive study on the “relative difficulty of examinations in different subjects” was performed by Robert Coe et al on behalf of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University (2008). The report can be found here, I would draw your attention to figure 7 on page 81 and also shown below:


Estimate of relative difficulty of each grade in each A-level subject.

And finally….

“Magic Mirror on the wall, which is the hardest A-level subject of them all….?”

….well, it depends on which metric you view this question through, but it is certainly true that not all subjects award A-level grades equally. This is something that Ofqual has launched a public consultation on. Interested parties can take part in an online survey to contribute their views.

The survey closes on 4 March 2016.

*********** UPDATE 25th Jan 2016************

I’ve just found this on my twitter feed from @Killer_Question. Ok, only around 100 Twitterati responded to the poll, but interesting to see people’s perceptions when comparing the difficulty of different A-level subjects:

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Improving the gender imbalance in A-level physics


Typing “Physicist” into Google image search can be summed up in three words: pale, male and stale [7].

Since the turn of the millennium, uptake in the A-level STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)  has started to make a come back [1].


In 2012 the 3rd most popular A-level subject in the UK for boys was physics (27,148 entries). For comparison, A-level physics only ranked 18th for girls (7,361 entries) [1]. Alas, girls only make up around 20% of a typical A-level physics classroom – indeed this low ratio has persisted for a number of decades [2].


In the latest 2015 statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications, the gender imbalance for A-level physics was the second worst, only outdone by A-level computing.


Considering science (double award or separate sciences) is compulsory for all boys AND girls at GCSE, why should girls interest in physics drop off so suddenly at A-level (even though they show similar attainment to boys at GCSE)?

Research from the Institute of Physics has revealed some of the important issues that underlie these worrying statistics [2]:

  • It can’t be assumed that in the current National Curriculum, all students, particularly girls, are gaining meaningful access to physics.
  • Students’ interest in science declines as they progress through their GCSE years, particularly for girls and particularly in physics.
  • Girls, more than boys, experience a difference between their personal goals for learning and the learning goals of the physics curriculum. As a consequence they are less inclined to opt for A-level physics, even if they achieve high grades at GCSE.
  • As they go through school, students experience physics to be increasingly difficult. This perception is in part due to the mathematical demands of the subject but also to girls’ developing feeling of “not being able to do physics” even though this in not borne out in their performance at GCSE.

The solution….?

So, what can be done to address this issue? How do secondary school physics teachers go about improving the gender balance in our subject?

Well, the Institute of Physics has done some sterling work to understand and address the issue of girls’ under-representation in physics in post-16 education [2,3]. They have even produced a drama that shows two teachers struggling to change their teaching to “save” their student Nellie’s interest in physics…..

To summarise the ending of the video, to keep girls interested in physics, and ultimately increase uptake post-16, physics teachers need to:

  1. Make physics relevant to students every day lives
  2. Break up crowds and make up teams – groups of no more than 3, boys can take over in practical work so consider all girl groups, or alternatively, assign individual roles so everyone can actively participate
  3. Run with the student’s (rather than teacher’s) ideas…see where they lead. Sometimes you may be surprised how good they can be!
  4. Know their students – what are they good at outside of your subject?
  5. Be passionate about their subject! (an easy win here)

Indeed, while all of the above points are very relevant, I would go further and include a further 7 strategies:

6. Inform career paths

Girls are more likely to forward plan so links to careers are an effective engagement tool for them. Even if students aren’t sure what they would like to go on to do (at university), an A-level in maths or the sciences which are facilitating subjects, are an excellent choice for any student who wants to go onto higher education since they open up doors to the vast majority of undergraduate courses [1].


Certainly, when I spoke to my top set Year 11 physics class, the majority of students were unaware of where a physics A-level/degree could take you. They were genuinely surprised when I went through all the job opportunities afforded to them by physics [5]. The girls were particularly interested in careers that involved caring for others such as a medical physicists (radiographer/sonographer) and environmental scientists, careers that were multidisciplinary in nature (science journalist, university researcher), or  especially careers that involved the space industry.

Interestingly, the fact that physics graduates often outperform the majority of other  graduates in terms of salary – girls seemed to place little value on this.

7. Role models (sixth formers and parents)

When girls are in the process of selecting their A-level subjects they tend to be heavily influenced by two particular groups:

  1. Their peers
  2. Their parents

In respect of their peer group, girls often decide as a collective what subjects they want to study at A-level. They are unlikely to take up a subject if no-one on their peer group will be in the class. To this end you need a critical number of girls to take an interest in A-level physics to get any in your class at all!  In order to show Year 11 girls that A-level physics is an option for them it is useful to present them with strong female role-models. This could be in the form of successful female physicists [6], or even better, asking your female Year 13 students if they would chat to your Year 11 class for 20-30 minutes about their (positive) experiences of physics in the sixth form.

Parents are another heavy influence on any teenagers life when choosing A-level subjects. Worryingly, when parents were asked “What type of job would you most like your child to pursue when they finish their education?”, parents veered towards engineer/scientist for their sons and teacher/nurse/fashion designed for their daughters [7,8]:


This just goes to show not only is it important to educate students about careers advice, but also educate their parents. This could be done at parents’ evenings or even sixth-form open days/evenings.

8. Teacher feedback

“Boys are often criticised about their behaviour rather than the quality of their work so they retain confidence in their ability despite criticism. Girls receive less negative feedback than boys but this is focused on their work.

Where both sexes were given the sort of feedback most often given to girls, both sexes tended to lose confidence in their academic abilities.

Girls tend to be praised more for hard work and good behaviour where as boys get praised more for ideas and understanding.

When girls do badly they tend to blame themselves, when boys do badly they tend to blame external factors.”

– Rachel Hartley [1,4]

So how do we rectify this in the classroom? Rachel Hartley from the Stimulating Physics Network suggests it is very important to really value girls’ ideas and positively praise them (above that of their work). A good teacher-student relationship where girls feel their ideas are valued enhances girls’ overall attitudes to physics.

9. Use of language

Removing unconscious gender bias

This year I have taken great care when teaching physics to my classes to weed out any unconscious gender bias. What do I mean by unconscious gender bias? Well, physics tends to lend itself to situations where it is very easy to unconsciously use male language when explaining things. For example, talking about “levers” you may start your lesson talking about a (male) mechanic using a lever to undue the bolt on a car tyre, or teaching “conservation of momentum” using a soldier firing a gun at a target, or even something as simple as drawing male stick figures on the whiteboard. To this end I have done my utmost to ensure I remove this unconscious gender bias – for example, when teaching the conservation of momentum, why not use the example of Katniss (of Hunger Games fame) firing an arrow from her bow…?

Using positive language

We have recently published our new sixth form prospectus with two pages detailing the course specifics for each A-level subject. Last year’s physics page started with …

Physics at A-Level is a demanding but rewarding subject…

Don’t consider this course if……

  • You think it will be easy
  • You’re not willing to work hard“,

…..we have found that rather than saying how difficult a subject is, much better to promote the positive aspects of the subject. You can say that a course is tricky but us more student friendly language. This year the same page begins…

Physics is crucial to understanding the world around us, the world inside us, and the world beyond us. You will study everything from quarks to quantum mechanics, from fusion to force fields, from singularities to supernovae! Physics underpins all the other sciences and therefore everything around us. If you’ve always asked “Why does that happen?” then this is the A-level for you.

Consider studying this course if…

  • You are considering applying to a Russell Group University and want a well respected A-level that will facilitate application to an extremely wide range of degree courses
  • You want to study a subject that will both ask (and answer) the deepest and most profound questions of the universe.
  • You are taking A-level Maths or another science (Chemistry, Biology) A-level.”

10. School trips

School trips are a source of wonder for every student. At our school we are very lucky to run the following trips:

This year I am fortunate to take my Y11 to GCSE Science Live where I hope all the students will be inspired by the professional scientists there. I am especially looking forward to seeing Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock a female space scientist – it doesn’t get any better than that for positive female science role models!

11. School assemblies

So far I have mainly talked about the activities based around my physics GCSE classes (Years 9-11) to promote girls taking A-level physics in Years 12 & 13. However, there is a lot to be said about inspiring students for a love of physics from a younger age (Years 7 & 8 in my school). Since physics teachers are quite a rare commodity we don’t often get much (if any) time to teach physics at Key Stage 3 and mainly concentrate on the exam groups in Years 10/11/12 & 13. However, since we are fortunate to have a school assembly every day, this does provide an excellent platform to inspire these younger year groups. Again, these younger year groups absolutely love space and particle physics, so why not engage that enthusiasm? Some recent assemblies I have given this/last year:

The day the Earth smiled:


“Look again at that dot. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” – Carl Sagan

 My visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN:


An assembly on Tim Peake’s launch to the International Space Station:


 12. Extra-curricular space balloon club

Finally, to jump off the back of the success and excitement around Tim Peake’s five month stay on the ISS and the students (particularly girls) interest in space in general (this seems to be their favourite physics topic), we have partnered up with European Astrotech to run a High Altitude Balloon (HAB) project. This is an educational project for students to gain first-hand experience of planning and designing their own scientific experiments which will be launched on a high altitude balloon from the school field to the edge of space, followed by the collection, analysis and presentation of their results. A short clip produced by European Astrotech can be found below:

While this project was initially intended for Year 12/13 physicists only, it proved so popular with the students (especially sixth form girls) that it was extended so that we will be conducting a double space balloon launch, hopefully towards the beginning of April….watch this space.

To conclude

So that’s it,  twelve different strategies to implement over the course of the rest of this academic year to improve the gender imbalance in A-level physics. I’ll feedback in September 2016 to let you know if it worked with our new Year 12 intake…….!

**********************UPDATE **********************

April 2017:

Have just read a great article by Sally Weatherly (@SallyWeatherly1) from Guzled on “Why Do Girls Fear Physics?“‏. She has produced a wonderful whitepaper on the issue with practical tips to help girls be more confident in this subject. The whitepaper can be found in her article or here.



  1. Girls and the physics classroom Rachel Hartley, Stimulating Physics Network
  2. Girls in the Physics Classroom (Dec 2006) Institute of Physics
  3. Gender Balance Institute of Physics
  4. Physics is for girls – opening doors Liz Swinbank, University of York 
  5. Careers in physics (
  6. Women in physics (American Physical Society)
  7. IOP NQT Conf 2015: Girls in Physics (10min YouTube clip)
  8. Improving Diversity in STEM (May 2014) Campaign for Science & Engineering


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